Tea at the Waldorf with Carson and Mrs Hughes – just how Downton can you get? At one point I even have a Lady Mary moment and feel, as she surely must, that warm protected glow that comes with having one’s trusted old retainer sort out a problem and make everything all right in the world again. There is a tricky moment with a troublesome hinged tea strainer. Carson comes to the rescue: “Let me do it,” he leans over, with that special Carson-ish brand of firm concern. “If you could just move your water glass – there you go, there you go... and then you do it like that, and that catches the drips – da-da-dee-da-da-da!”
Did you always know how to manoeuvre these? “I saw Roy the waiter do it.” Of course, we would never see the actual Carson do that in Downton Abbey. It would be quite beneath his dignity. “No, God, just think of it!” says Mrs Hughes.
The two actors I’m taking tea with do not – surprise, surprise – have much in common with their characters. Jim Carter, far from being a stickler for convention, is practically an anarchic counterculture class warrior and, incidentally, hates tea. But, as I point out to him, while Carter has a background in tightrope-walking circus skills, Carson has a rackety past as a music-hall entertainer.
The actor replies that the difference is that he is not at all embarrassed of his juggling days. “I’m very proud of it. There are very few similarities between me and Carson. He lives by routine and by the clock – and that is absolute anathema to me. I couldn’t live a regular life with regular hours.” This is a man who is so very sure of himself that he goes on flower-arranging courses – and, no, he is not gay. He is married and has a daughter with actress Imelda Staunton.
Mrs Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan, can be severe but also kindly. The actress is very softly spoken and unassuming, even possibly a little bit shy – and then she takes you aback with her salty language in an hilarious but quite unprintable anecdote. I suspect she must be a lot of fun after a few drinks around her dinner table. Carter says that she is “the world’s greatest hostess – she always has a house full of guests.”
Logan’s husband Kevin McNally, with whom she has a son, is also an actor – he’s been in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and had a small part in Downton as the unkind grandfather of maid Ethel’s illegitimate son, which was, she has said, frankly, “embarrassing. Like Bring Your Husband to Work Day.”
The whole Downton family will be going to London in the two-hour Christmas special. Why?
The actors exchange a momentary baffled look. Carter: “Oh, because Rose is coming out. Rose, or is it Lily? What’s her name? No, Lady Rose [played by Lily James] – it’s her coming out – in a debutante sense.
“And whatshername – um, Martha, comes back. Shirley MacLaine comes back with her son, who is played by Paul Giamatti [of Sideways fame]. LOVE-ly man. Fitted right in. Jolly good fun.”
But to be blunt, what everyone wants to know is, are Carson and Mrs Hughes ever going to get it on? Might they have “a moment”? Or, at the very least, a hint of tenderness between them, to keep our appetite for their potential romance sated? The actors switch between appearing genuinely ignorant of creator Julian Fellowes’s intentions and teasing me with possibilities.
Carter: “We couldn’t possibly, possibly reveal anything at all – I don’t think there is anything conclusive at all... I mean, well, mind you... we did shoot it in July. Hahahah hahaha.”
Logan: “Yes, it’s difficult to remember... haha hahaha.”
Why do they think the viewers and the press want there to be a love story between their two characters? “Look, nobody knows – least of all us,” says Carter, his voice a deep northern rumble – “uzzzz”. “I think people are very affectionate towards Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes. And because we have our lovely scenes where we meet up at the end of the day and share a sherry, and we’re the only people downstairs of equal status so we can share confidences, I think people are busily reading romance into that – and the whole thing’s about love stories, isn’t it?”
Fellowes might be on to a winner (as if he’s not already) if he did develop this as a storyline.
The huge success of Last Tango in Halifax (Carter: “It’s not fussy. It just lets people talk. It’s brilliant – I absolutely love it”), which centres on two elderly people falling passionately in love, suggests that viewers no longer – if they ever did – care about the age of their lovers. Cherie Lunghi and Barbara Flynn had starring roles in ITV sitcom Pat and Cabbage as 60-something women behaving badly and being romanced. And on the big screen there’s been Le Week-End, Quartet, Amour, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
“Well, as a person of a certain age – regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman – it would be nice to think that we’re not just confined to being ‘old’, but that we still have options to play a variety of emotions and parts,” Logan says in her soft Scottish accent. But how often have we seen old men in Hollywood films playing ancient roués with young babes as their love interest? “I think people now realise how ridiculous that is,” she says. “Look at Cranford,” Carter adds. “It had Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Barbara Flynn, Deborah Findlay, Julia McKenzie... They were up there in the front, and love’s young dream was pushed into the corner. That was successful and people enjoyed that.”
Carter, 65, was a student at Sussex University in the 1960s, when it was known for its radicalism. “Yeahhh,” his eyes light up and expressive eyebrows quiver. “Sussex in the late 60s! Whoa-ho-ho! We were right in the middle of it all – it was LOVE-ly. [The way he says LOVE-ly is lovely, and he says it a lot.] It was quite an eye-opener, coming from Harrogate.” A bright child, he was encouraged to read law by his school. He studied it for a year, took time out to go travelling, came back and changed his degree to English and then dropped out to act: “I have an independent spirit and always went my own way.”
Logan says that she was in every school play and the film club and the theatre-going club but she grew up in a small town just outside Glasgow, “and it wasn’t on anybody’s radar going to drama school or being an actor”. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what she did, contrary to the warnings of her careers advisor.
She is eight years younger than Carter, at 57. Did she have anything like his wild experiences in the 1970s? “Not really – just in a very small way, you know, touring theatres in Scotland – going to Ullapool and places like that.” She did however have the adventure of working on Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, as Timothy Spall’s wife, with Leigh’s famous script-free improvisational direction. “It was a challenging process but there was something very liberating about it, in the sense that you never wandered around saying, ‘What the hell have I done with my script?’ because I’m always losing my script on set.”
Both actors are fans of Downton and watch it every Sunday, because although they’ve read the scripts, they haven’t been around for the other actors’ scenes. “It’s the perfect combination,” Carter says. “It’s Sunday night, it’s nine o’clock, you think, ‘Oh right, we’ve done the washing-up, let’s have a sit down and finish the week with Downton.’” Logan adds: “And it’s only an hour, so it’s not as if it’s going to be too late to go to bed.”
Carter is bemused by aspects of The Downton Effect. They are both thrilled that its success means that they can translate it into doing something worthwhile, and both lend their support to different charities. The Downton cast recently got together to raise money at a Childline Ball (£660,000 by the end of the evening); one item at the auction was “A consoling hug from Carson” for which the winning bid was £700.
The oddest time he has been recognised was on a bike ride for charity in Cambodia, when a group of Chinese tourists came up to him at Angkor Wat chanting, "Mr Carson! Mr Carson!"
One of his biggest thrills was being given a private tour of the White House when he was there on a publicity tour to launch season three. First there was a do at the British ambassador’s residence, “in a large room stuffed full of Americans, quite posh, who were all old enough to know better – pulling at us, photographing us – really quite undignified and quite exhausting. [American bark] ‘I’m taking a picture now!’ ” he says, with positively Carson-like disapproval.
Then on to the White House, where the cast was shown the Situation Room. No sooner were they told they couldn’t go in, than all the marines keeping surveillance on the world on monitors leapt up. “It’s Down Town Abbey! Oh my God! Come in, guys!” Into the long room and the President’s chair, “so we all sat in that!” Thence into the domestic end of things, where they met Michelle Obama’s housekeeper and saw the 54 Christmas trees and were served drinks and cookies. “And we were there till midnight, you know – and that’s all because of a telly show!”
Are they political? One of the backdrops of Downton is the slowly shifting movement of the class system. But are we ever going to get rid of it in modern Britain? Logan jumps in. “It’s still there, for sure, but it’s not so much class as the haves and have-nots – and the have-somethings, but not a great deal. I suppose people who are privileged maybe nowadays are more aware of the fact that they can’t go poncing about.”
Carter adds: “I don’t know, because we have a Tory cabinet stuffed full of old Etonians – so what’s changed? Is this Harold Macmillan or is this 2013? And being embarrassed about [their background] doesn’t stop them being it, I don’t suppose. People always strive for more – whether it’s more social status or more money or more possessions. Hopefully all that will be shown up for the crock of s**t it is, and people will forget about it. Maybe if enough bankers do us a favour and ruin the economy, maybe we’ll say, ‘Shall we just back out of this system?’”
Carter has to rush off to meet a team of lady cricketers in his role as chairman of the Hampstead Cricket Club. “The youngsters go dashing around madly looking for work,” he says. “But I don’t because I’m too busy. There’s life to be lived!”
Before you go, are you sure there’s nothing you want to tell me? “There’s nothing to give away,” Logan smiles. Carter’s eyebrows bristle: “And what would be the point of knowing the story, anyway? ‘Oh, Hamlet dies! Shut up! You didn’t tell me that!’"
Downton Abbey returns on Christmas Day at 8:30pm on ITV